Madrasa Reform and the Indian State
By Yoginder Sikand
Reforming the madrasas has today emerged as a major concern for many. Governments, such as those of India, Pakistan, and, of course, countries in the West, particularly America, are now eagerly seeking to enforce changes in the madrasa system, in the belief that 'unreformed' madrasas are rapidly emerging as major training grounds for 'terrorists'. In the past, to be sure, such calls were not unheard of, but the rationale for government intervention through madrasa 'modernisation' was articulated in terms of helping the Muslims join the 'national mainstream', with madrasas being generally seen as 'backward', unconcerned with the world around them and generally resistant to change. Today, however, the rationale has shifted dramatically, with madrasas now seen as somehow too 'worldly' for 'proper' religious institutions, allegedly churning out militant activists charged with a burning sense of mission to capture political power.
In India today, calls for government intervention in the madrasa system reflect a challenge perceived by the state from the autonomy of the madrasas. Most madrasas are not dependent on the state for funds. Their financial independence is seen by the state as providing the madrasas with a vast influence, over which it has little or no control. The independence of the madrasas is generally viewed, particularly by government officials with a soft corner for Hindutva-brand nationalism, as particularly potent challenge to the project of a monolithic Indian nationalism based on Brahminical Hinduism. As defenders of Islamic 'orthodoxy' and Muslim community identity, and as alleged advocates of pan-Islamism or militancy, madrasas are regarded by the Hindu chauvinists, now so entrenched in positions of power, as particularly menacing. Hence, Hindutva leaders have insisted on the need for careful state monitoring and control of the madrasas, and some have even gone to the extent of demanding that the state close them all down. On the other hand, 'secular' political parties in power in some states have sought to extend assistance to madrasas, aware of the considerable influence that the 'ulama wield over Muslim voters as well as appreciative of the efforts that madrasas are making in promoting literacy among Muslims. The state's relations with the madrasas are thus determined by a mixed set of motives.
Ostensibly, the state's case for madrasa 'modernisation' rests on two premises: that such 'modernisation' is needed in order to promote 'modern' and 'rational' thinking' and that it is only by 'modernising' themselves that madrasa students can enter the educational 'mainstream' of the country. It is also claimed that madrasa 'modernisation' is necessary for promoting 'national integration'. The assumption, therefore, is that traditional madrasa education hampers such 'integration', causing Muslim children to be cut-off from the 'mainstream'. The 'mainstream' and the 'nation' are generally viewed in hegemonic terms, as represented by a distinctly 'upper' caste Hindu ethos. Joining the 'mainstream' might then be simply a euphemism for shedding a separate Muslim identity and submerging it within a larger 'Indian' identity that is defined in largely Hindu terms.
This suggests that the state's profession of concern for Muslim educational development through the 'modernization' of madrasas needs to be carefully and criticallyinterrogated. If promoting Muslim education were indeed a primary concern of the government, critics are not slow in arguing, it should have paid more attention to setting up more 'modern' schools in Muslim localities, which it has clearly failed to do. In fact, it is pointed out, the level of educational provision by the state in Muslim areas is far below the level of other, particularly Hindu, areas, leaving the state open to charges of considerable discrimination against Muslims. Not surprisingly, many Muslims view the state's efforts to interfere in the madrasas as motivated by ulterior motives. In response to a state-sponsored report that recommended that madrasas should teach 'Vedic Mathematics' as part of a proposed modernization scheme, numerous 'ulama argued that this clearly showed that the state was attempting to dilute the Islamic identity of the madrasas through the backdoor while claiming to assist them.
Government efforts to reform the madrasa so far have taken, broadly speaking, three forms: (i) setting up by state governments of boards for madrasa education (ii) providing financial assistance to selected madrasas to teach secular subjects, and (iii) arranging for recognition of certain madrasas by certain state-funded universities. In India today, seven states (Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal) have government-sponsored madrasa education boards, to which a number of madrasas are affiliated. Not all the madrasas in these states are members of the state boards, however, and madrasas are free to choose to join or not. Several of the affiliated madrasas receive some sort of assistance from state governments, such as, for instance, teachers' salaries. In turn, these madrasas have to abide by certain norms laid down by the state, including in matters of curriculum. Graduates of most madrasas affiliated to the boards can go on to join regular colleges.
In recent years, the Government of India as well as some state governments have launched some small schemes ostensibly to assist some madrasas, such as by providing them paid teachers to teach modern subjects. In 1986, the Government of India issued a document on its new education policy, which included proposals for government intervention in madrasa education through a 'Madrasa Modernization Programme'. In the Government's revised plan of action document issued in 1992, it suggested the introduction of 'modern' subjects such as science, mathematics, English and Hindi in the madrasas, the expenses for which would be borne partly by the state.
Despite its claims to be seriously committed to madrasa 'modernization', the government appears, in fact, to have actually done little about it in practical terms. The funds sanctioned for the madrasa modernization scheme are said to have been woefully limited. In actual practice, it has proved extremely difficult for madrasas who wish to participate in the scheme to obtain financial assistance from the state. According to the rules of the scheme, madrasas would be financed only after receiving a security clearance from state governments. This is said to entail long and complicated bureaucratic hurdles and, often, the added burden of paying bribes to petty government servants, which several madrasas either cannot afford or else simply refuse to do. Further compounding the problem is the fact that some bureaucrats apparently do not wish the scheme to succeed. Thus, according to a report on the madrasa modernization project in Bihar, some government servants in the state 'with a communal bent of mind' effectively sabotaged the government's scheme of helping the madrasas financially by not disbursing the money allocated by the government to the madrasas. Apparently, the Ministry of Human Resources Development had sanctioned a sum of Rs.43 lakhs to the Bihar government in the year 1999-2000 under the madrasa modernization scheme, which was to be implemented in the state by the Bihar State Madrasa Education Board. However, this money was not provided to the Board, whose officials claimed they had no knowledge of how it was spent. B.P. Srivastava, Bihar's education secretary and chairman of the committee dealing with the scheme, confessed that he had not sent a 'utilisation certificate' to the Central government explaining what happened to the money. He offered the specious argument that the money was not provided to the Board because of 'pre-occupation with other matters'. Because Srivastava did not disburse the money, the Union Government decided not to provide the Bihar government the sum of Rs.3.57 crore that it had allocated for the madrasa modernization scheme for the next year.
In some other states, however, the scheme seems to have achieved considerable results, and several madrasas have come forth to cooperate. In 2001, some 3500 out of a total of 6000 madrasas in Madhya Pradesh, with some 1,75,000 students on their rolls, were receiving modest financial assistance from the state government for teaching secular subjects through the Madhya Pradesh Madrasa Education Board. By 1999, some 600 madrasas in Rajasthan out of a total of
5000-odd in the state had received recognition from the state government, and several of them had received some sort of government funding. The government had allotted a sum of Rs. 2 crores for madrasas in that financial year, but since the entire budget could not be utilized, it was cut down to Rs.78 lakhs in 2001. Yet, despite the drastically reduced budget, state-recognised madrasas seem to have performed exceptionally well in Rajasthan. According to one report, these madrasas had achieved new records, with between 90 to 100 per cent of their students being successful in their examinations, as against a pass-rate of 65 per cent in government schools situated in Muslim-dominated localities. 60 per cent of the students of these madrasas secured a first division, while the corresponding figure for government schools was an abysmal 20 per cent. Half of the successful madrasa students were girls. Impressed with the progress that the madrasas were making, the state government, in co-operation with several madrasas, had chalked out a plan to appoint 'education workers' (shiksha karmis) to teach secular subjects in selected madrasas. In addition, the government had launched a scheme to distribute free science and other textbooks to selected madrasas through the Rajasthan Waqf Board. In a state where only 0.15 per cent of the students in colleges and universities are Muslim, well below the community's representation in the state's population, clearly the madrasas assisted by the government are playing a major role in promoting literacy.
Another way in which the state has sought to engage with the madrasas is by allowing selected universities to recognize the degrees of certain madrasas, enabling their graduates to enroll therein for higher education and helping them join bringing the educational 'mainstream'. Several larger madrasas have managed to secure recognition of their degrees by universities such as the Aligarh Muslim University, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Lucknow University, Jami'a Millia Islamiya and the Jami'a Hamdard, New Delhi. Madrasa students who join these universities generally enroll for courses in subjects such as Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Islamic Studies and History, but, increasingly, some are going in for other disciplines, such as English. Some madrasas actively encourage some of their brighter students to enroll in universities, in the hope that, equipped with modern knowledge, they would return to their alma maters to teach and help improve their standards. Indeed, a growing number of madrasas now include among their teachers former madrasa students who have also acquired degrees in regular universities.
For their part, the 'ulama seem to be sharply divided on the matter of madrasas receiving state patronage. Some, probably a minority, see no harm in receiving funds from the state, claiming that the state has not, at least as yet, linked its offer of financial assistance to madrasas to any preconditions, such as radically changing the content of their curriculum or interfering in their administration. On the one hand, many other 'ulama and Muslim leaders argue that accepting funds from the state would bound to lead to state interference in the affairs of the madrasas, leaving them open to a subtle process of Hinduisation. They claim that by linking assistance with 'modernisation' of the curriculum the religious content of the syllabus could been considerably watered down and that, burdened with the need to learn both 'religious' as well as 'modern' subjects the students would do well in neither. It is also generally argued that the standard of education in government assisted madrasas is considerably lower than in independent madrasas, since in the former teachers, being paid by the government and assured of a permanent job, are no longer answerable to the madrasa management and do not take their duties seriously, being concerned simply with getting a regular salary. Hence, it is stressed, madrasas should avoid taking any money from the government. Thus, a noted Deobandi 'alim, Mufti Muhammad Sulaiman Mansurpuri, warns the 'ulama not to fall prey to the blandishments of the state, asserting: "To accept government aid from the state would lead to the death of the madrasas. It would be a gross violation of the aims of their founders, and would destroy their spirit of service to the faith […]. It would lead to the madrasas becoming the graveyards of the sciences of religion […] Because of this, no self-respecting 'alim and servant of the faith can accept, even for a single moment, assistance from the government. We may suffer great financial hardships thereby, but we should reject government aid and rely only on Allah". Overall, then, the madrasas seem not to have been particularly enthusiastic about government offers of help, although there are notable exceptions. Rather than look to the state for assistance to promote reform, today many madrasas are seeking to help themselves, developing innovative forms of Islamic education. Obviously, the best way to promote reform in the madrasa system is with the willing consent and cooperation of the 'ulama themselves. This, however, can only come about in a climate of trust and confidence, which, in turn, relates to the broader question of inter-communal relations in India. For that to happen, and for more positive and contextually relevant understandings of Islam to emerge from among the 'ulama, the problem of Hindu-Muslim relations, and particularly the challenge of Hindutva chauvinism, have to be seriously tackled. To expect madrasas to reform and to open up to the wider society in the face of increasing assaults by the state in league with Hindu chauvinist forces is to ask for the impossible and can serve no purpose at all.
(Cobrapost News Features)